Chobanian: King of the road
By David J. Craig
On a cool evening last month in Los Angeles, hundreds of people, ranging from their early 20s to their 80s, gathered at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to sip wine, discuss the very un-Tinseltown recent weather, and reflect on the institution 3,000 miles away that binds them — Boston University.
BU’s chief ambassador that evening was President ad interim Aram Chobanian, whose warm and gentle demeanor put at ease everyone who approached him to ask about the University’s ambitious building projects, when a new president will be chosen, or if Terrier football might one day return.
“The wonderful thing about Dr. Chobanian in that situation is his openness and graciousness and that he is very intelligent, yet unassuming,” says Jonathan Tavss (CFA’92), a media consultant and cochair of BU’s Los Angeles Alumni Association, who helped organize the January 13 event. “And of course, he really brings out the people.”
The former Medical Campus provost and School of Medicine dean has been bringing out the people regularly since stepping up to lead the University 15 months ago, attending major alumni functions in 15 U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, New Orleans, and Miami. Chobanian currently is preparing to embark on a five-day swing through Florida beginning February 9 that will include alumni receptions, dinners, and meetings in Palm Beach, Miami, and Naples. The Florida trek comes less than a month after his five-day tour of the West Coast, where he attended BU functions in San Francisco and Portland, Ore., as well as Los Angeles.
In Florida, as on previous trips, Chobanian will visit with members of the BU community in one-on-one meetings, small gatherings, and large functions, as well as meet with individual philanthropists and foundation representatives. A priority is cultivating donor support, of course, but Chobanian says his outreach serves an even more fundamental purpose: keeping the University family informed during a period of dramatic transformation for BU.
What’s going on
“The University obviously experienced some negative press in the last couple of years regarding its presidential search, and I believe it’s important people hear about what’s really going at BU,” says Chobanian. “I tell them about the Student Village and the other ongoing building projects, the tremendous growth in research, the accomplishments of faculty and students, the progress on the presidential search, and the changes to the Board of Trustees and Board governance.
“I’ve always found that having face-to-face contact with alumni is a very effective way of keeping them engaged in what’s happening at Boston University and giving them a sense of pride in BU,” he continues. “I certainly found that to be true in my time at the Medical Campus, and I think it’s important for the University now as a whole. I’ve been encouraging deans and faculty members to reach out, and many are doing a good job at it.”
Chobanian typically travels with his wife, the painter Jasmine Chobanian, and Christopher Reaske, vice president for development and alumni relations. A day on the road can include up to six separate engagements in different areas, beginning with a breakfast meeting and frequently ending late in the day with a large evening reception for hundreds of alumni or dinners for special friends of the University. The Florida trip will include a private dinner for friends of BU hosted by trustee Marshall Sloane (SMG’49) in Palm Beach.
“I usually wake early, and the days are very busy and full of meetings, with little time to catch my breath,” says Chobanian. “It’s a tiring schedule, but I genuinely enjoy speaking to people and getting feedback from them. It’s a great way for me to keep my finger on the pulse of what people are thinking and feeling about our institution, in addition to sharing my message about the University.”
In order to learn what’s on the minds of members of the BU community, Reaske and Chobanian encourage candor during the question-and-answer periods that wrap up alumni receptions. “It’s no-holds-barred,” says Reaske, who regularly visits alumni clubs overseas, among them in Hong Kong, Beijing, Hunan, and cities in Germany, France, Greece, and Turkey. “ Aram is very good at encouraging openness. We hear questions about everything you could imagine, and we answer them the best we can. Is football coming back? No, we’ll say, at least not in the foreseeable future. When are we going to have a new president? We’ll describe honestly how the search is progressing and the changes that have occurred on the Board.”
Alumni say the receptions provide them an important source of information about the University, as does their participation in an alumni association generally. “I read several of BU’s publications, but you’re not going to read much about the University in newspapers on the West Coast, so word-of-mouth news is a way to stay up to date,” says Marion Kramer (CAS’63), an obstetrician and gynecologist in Hayward, Calif. At a reception attended by Chobanian in San Francisco on January 15, she met many younger alumni, as well as parents of current students. “It was nice meeting people who attended BU recently,” she says, “and to hear what drew them out to Boston.”
Chobanian’s gatherings attract alumni from a wide variety of age groups and professions, and sometimes even prospective students wanting to learn firsthand about BU and parents of current students, say event organizers. Getting alumni together strengthens local associations and makes them more efficient networking bodies. “Since the LA event on January 13, I’ve been contacted by four alumni who were not involved before,” says Tavss, who organizes casual monthly alumni outings in LA. “Not only do they want to attend our outings, they’re coming to me with ideas for activities they’d like to help organize. When you get that kind of enthusiasm, it’s clear that people understand that being an involved alum is not about the University asking you for money — it’s about staying involved in a community that benefits its participants.”
Lance Ganis (SMG’78), who works in finance in Broward, Fla., expects that a February 13 alumni reception he is helping organize in Miami will draw the city’s young urban professionals as well as retirees. “Chobanian is going to draw out everybody, the older alumni who want to know where their money is going, the younger alumni who want to know exactly what has developed at BU since they graduated, and the people who love Boston and the Red Sox and the Patriots like a religion,” he says. “We’ll want to hear numbers about enrollment and tuition and research and building projects, everything. The energy at these events is terrific, and people get very excited when they hear good news in terms that they can relate to.”